Saturday, March 25, 2017

Migrants, Manitobans and Mennonites: Religious Response to the Refugee Crisis

How should Manitobans respond to the over 200 refugees that have crossed into Manitoba from the U.S. since the start of the year? That question has been on the mind of many people over the past few months.

Since most of these asylum-seekers have entered Canada at Emerson, a small town of about 650 people, I found myself wondering: What are the churches in that community doing?

I decided to try to find out. The four churches in Emerson—Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic and United—are very small and, it seems, served by part-time clergy or clergy who look after two three churches in southern Manitoba.

When I called St. Andrews United Church in Emerson, I got a message from an answering machine indicating that the church had received lots of calls about how to help the migrants and refugees.

It went on to say that “none of the churches are directly involved” in helping the border-crossers, who don’t actually spend much time in Emerson; they are quickly transported to Winnipeg, where they are assisted by charities like Welcome Place.

“If you are interested in donating or offering any assistance” contact Welcome Place, the message continued.

So I did. Marchris Gladys, a manager at Welcome Place, told me that since January 1 almost 200 refugees and migrants had sought assistance from the organization, which provides transitional housing and other supports and services to newcomers to Canada. Last year, they had a total of 70 people needing assistance.

What they need most, she said, is money for food, clothing and other necessities for the unexpected flood of newcomers. They have a goal of $300,000; to date, about $27,000 has been donated.

The influx of refugees has also prompted an interesting discussion in the Mennonite community—a group of people who once found themselves in need of safe haven in Canada.

It was started by a Facebook post from Winnipeg’s Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives. On February 21 the Centre’s archivist, Conrad Stoesz, posted an image of a newspaper headline from 1922 announcing “Mennonites now free to come to Canada.”

The newspaper article explained that an “objectionable regulation” that “discriminated” against Mennonites had been lifted by then Prime Minister MacKenzie King.

“In June 1919, the Canadian government banned Mennonite, Hutterite and Doukhobor immigration into Canada due to public pressure,” Stoesz wrote, noting that banning people deemed undesirable was not a new thing, or just an American thing.

“These German-speaking (Russian-speaking for the Doukhobors) people who refused military participation were considered a danger to Canada and lacked Canadian values.”

Reaction to the post was overwhelming, with over 126,000 views and over 1,000 shares so far.

“There’s been nothing like it before,” says Stoesz, adding that most-viewed item prior to this was 10,000 views for a post about Mennonite New Year’s cookies.

The timing of the Trump ban and migrants coming to Manitoba contributed to the interest, he says, adding that “many people saw the connection.”

As for why he posted the item, Stoesz says that he wanted to “raise awareness that Mennonites have suffered prejudice in Canada because of the language they spoke and for some of the values they held dear. Hopefully people will then think about this past and ask themselves how that informs their views on current situations in our world . . . The mirror of our past can help humble our views.”

For some people, the post and the story behind it was personal.

“The lifting of this ban allowed my great grandparents and my grandmother to come to Canada in the mid-1920s and to flee the devastation they experienced as a result of the Russian Revolution,” said one commenter. “I will always be grateful, and will remember what was offered to them and in turn pay it forward to those fleeing war today.”

Added another: “It seems unbelievable that at one point in history Mennonites were viewed as evil,” she said, adding “no doubt in 100 years people will be amazed that anyone would fear Muslims.”

If you want to make a donation to Welcome Place, go to or call 204-977-1000.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Canada at 150 and the Value of Religion

“When you start exploring the history of Canada, you come face-to-face with faith all the time.”

Last December, when Heritage Minister Melanie Joly announced a year of celebrations to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, she said that it would be a year to mark this country’s heritage, cultural diversity, citizenship, social contract, respect for pluralism, official languages and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

All good things, to be sure. But there was no mention of the substantial contribution organized religion has made to the history and creation of Canada.

The folks at Cardus, a Christian think tank based in Ontario, think that is a serious oversight. But rather than spend time and energy trying to convince the government to include people of faith in the celebration, they decided to do it themselves.

Faith in Canada 150 is the result. Through events, research, conferences, the sharing of stories and other activities, the organization is inviting people of faith in Canada to celebrate the role religion has played in Canadian history, and in life today.

“When you start exploring the history of Canada, you come face-to-face with faith all the time,” says Cardus President and CEO Michael Van Pelt.

“Hospitals, universities, charities and other services—so much of this country is built on the religious traditions of Canadians.”

Van Pelt says he was “disappointed” that the government failed to include religion in its official anniversary celebrations, but he doesn’t think it was intentional.

It’s more a matter of “forgetfulness” or “amnesia,” he says of how policy makers and others overlook the contribution of faith to Canada, combined with the “powerful secularization” occurring in the country today.

But even a cursory look at Canadian history, he says, shows that “the undercurrents of religion or stronger than many people think.”

Cardus elaborates on this theme on its Faith in Canada 150 website.

“For more than 450 years, faith has shaped the human landscape of Canada,” it says. “It has shaped how we live our lives, how we see our neighbours, how we fulfill our social responsibilities, how we imagine our life together.”

“This is the story that Faith in Canada 150 will tell,” it goes on to say. “It will nurture a public conversation that will remind us what our country is and why we live the way
we do. It will allow us to say, ‘Here is Canada. Here is why faith matters.’”

I think Cardus is on to something, and not just from a historical perspective. Canada is a thoroughly secular country, but religion still plays a vital role in many important ways.

One way is economically—maybe not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the ways religion impacts society, but perhaps an important way to catch the attention of political leaders.

In the U.S., a recent study by Georgetown University found that religion in that country is worth $1.2 trillion a year—more than the combined revenues of the top 10 technology companies in that country,  including Apple, Amazon and Google.

Researchers arrived at that figure by calculating the value of things such as religiously-owned or supported healthcare facilities, schools, daycares, charities, and media, along with businesses with faith backgrounds such as kosher and halal food markets, and direct spending by religious organizations and congregations.

At a more local level, a 2010 study of 12 congregations in Philadelphia came up with a figure of $62 million in annual economic value, based on direct spending, educational programs, community development, social capital and community care.

In 2015-16, Cardus sought to replicate that study in Canada, researching the economic value of ten congregations in Toronto. It came up with a figure of $45 million in local economic impact.

And then there’s the important role people of faith play in supporting charities. According to Statistics Canada, people who are more religiously active donate more often and to more charities, make larger gifts, and volunteer more time than those who aren’t as involved religiously.

Of course, money isn’t the only way to measure the impact of religion in society. But these days, with so much emphasis on the economy, it might one way to clearly demonstrate the importance of faith in Canada—right now, and into the future.

Maybe though Faith in Canada 150, that story—and many others—can be told.

From the March 18, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Parables of Jesus are "Narratives of Resistance" in Time of Trump

People Jesus spoke his parables to were living in “a horrifying wilderness of exclusion, silence, and humiliation . . . on the margins of the social order."

Like many churchgoers, I grew up with a steady diet of sermons about the parables of Jesus—stories about things like lost sheep, coins and sons; Good Samaritans and unforgiving servants; mustard seeds and persistent widows.

From them, I learned many important life lessons: Be kind, be generous, be compassionate. All good lessons, to be sure. But as my friend Gordon King reminds me, the parables are so much more.

For King, a Winnipegger and Resource Specialist with Canadian Baptist Ministries, the parables are more than just a collection of uplifting stories to help people live kinder lives and be better people.

Instead, he says, they are “narratives of resistance challenging audiences to participate in the personal and social transformation of God's kingdom.”

That’s the premise of his new book. Seed Falling on Good Soil: Rooting Our Lives in the Parables of Jesus, which he will launch on Tuesday, March 14, 7 PM at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

Palestine during the time of Jesus was filled with “intense conflict of ideological and religious ideas,” he says.

It was a time of Roman imperial oppression, autocratic rulers, cowed populations, tremendous disparity between the rich and the poor, a subservient and toadying religious establishment, ethnic and religious suspicion and separation—and growing signs of resistance and rebellion.

The people Jesus spoke his parables to, King says, were living in “a horrifying wilderness of exclusion, silence, and humiliation . . . on the margins of the social order. They were chronically food insecure, falling into debt and losing their land. Women were silenced in a patriarchal social setting.”

On the other side, “an elite minority lived in villas and had country estates,” living a life apart from the majority of their fellow citizens and collaborating with the occupiers.

Jesus’ parables, King says, addressed this reality.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, isn’t just a simple lesson about being kind to neighbours. Instead, it’s a profound challenge to cross ethnic, religious and political walls to help those in need.

The parable of the great banquet isn’t just about going to heaven to enjoy a feast with God, but about “sharing a table with hungry people on the margins” here and now.

And the parable of the persistent widow isn’t just about sticking things out, but about “the marginalization of women in so many parts of the world,” he says. “The widow is a woman that cries out for justice in a world that does not care about her.”

The parables, “are about hunger, justice for women, ethnic hatred, and extreme poverty,” he says. “These are not light issues.”

King found inspiration for his book through his career in international relief and development, working with poor people in the developing world.

During his travels in places like Africa and Asia, he came to see that the parables especially resonated with people in those countries because they saw themselves in the “stories from the world of the poor in the first century.”

Through his work, he was able to meet people who were “poor, lame, blind and hungry. I met the widow, I saw the memorials to people killed because of ethnic hatred. I saw farmers facing crop failure. And I have seen people hoarding produce without compassion for hungry people around them.”

What does he hope readers will take away from the book?

“I hope Christians that read it will wrestle with the calling of disciples to move out of an individualized spirituality to take on the mission of being salt and light,” he says.

At a time when the gap between rich and poor is increasing, when over 800 million people in the world don’t have enough to eat, when political leaders are fostering fear of people outside our countries and boundaries, and—closer to home—when refugees are crossing the border between North Dakota and Manitoba seeking safety, the parables of Jesus, King says, “call us to participate in God’s new creation in ways that have both personal and social dimensions today.”

They may also be the kinds of things, he adds, that “get the attention of Canadian Christians in the age of Trump.”

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Not About Being Liberal Or Conservative, But Paying Attention To People And Their Needs

Can theologically liberal churches succeed? Charleswood in Winnipeg and Hillhurst in Calgary say yes.

Last fall, researchers from two Ontario universities set out to discover why mainline churches in Canada are dying.

Of the 22 Anglican, United, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches they surveyed, all in Ontario, nine were growing, and 13 were declining.

Based on that research, they concluded that the more theologically conservative a church is, the more likely it is to be growing.

The implication of the research seemed to be that if a church wants to grow, it should be more conservative.

But a United Church in Winnipeg disagrees.

I’m talking about Charleswood United Church, a theologically progressive congregation that finds about 350 people attending services every Sunday.

According to minister Michael Wilson, the church is doing well because it is a “friendly and welcoming place, warm and active.”

Being the only United Church in Charleswood also helps, he acknowledges, but he says that people from other denominations are attracted by the church’s gay-friendly, progressive and liberal stance.

For Wilson, it isn’t as much about whether a church is conservative or liberal, “as much as it is a willingness to change.”

Many churches, he says, “wait too long to make needed changes. The congregation shrinks to a size where it isn’t sustainable. Changes need to be made when it is still healthy.”

He cites, for example, Charleswood’s worship style. It is still liturgical, he says, but it is also “adaptable and flexible”—the church has a traditional choir, but it also has a worship band.

Leadership plays a big role, says Wilson, who has been at Charleswood for 22 years.

“Leaders need to create a culture of permission,” he says. “We have to not get in the way when people feel called to do something new and different.”

This doesn’t mean that anything goes, he says, “but if it feels right, and people are enthusiastic, let them go to it.”

This can be scary for some churches, he notes, since it means giving up control. But thriving churches, he believes, don’t have “a small group determining how things are done,” but rather are “dynamic, organic, fluid.”

The key, he says, is to be always asking the question: “What is God calling our congregation to do?”

This can also mean going against the way things have always been done, either as a church or denomination.

“There has traditionally been a United Church way of doing things, having to operate in a certain way,” he says. “But revitalized churches are doing it their own way.”

Even though Charleswood is liberal and progressive, Wilson says that he is “surprisingly orthodox. I’m Trinitarian, and I believe in the authority of scripture. I’m progressive in interpretation.”

Ultimately, he says, “it’s not about being liberal or conservative, but paying attention to people and their needs, honouring people where they are at, affirming them, creating a safe place, being welcoming.”

“The common denominator is that people who come here, like coming here.”

One of the places Wilson draws inspiration from for his ministry is Hillhurst United Church in Calgary.

Unlike Charleswood, which had been mostly stable over the course of its history before increasing, Hillhurst “died and was born again,” says its minister, John Pentland.

When he arrived, in 2005, the congregation was down to about 50 people, and talking about closing.

Today about 500 people attend two services each Sunday, he says, noting that a third of the congregation are United Church, a third are from other denominations, and a third claim no church background at all.

To what does he attribute the turnaround?

It takes time, he says, and “leadership that casts a vision” and isn’t “afraid to let some things die.”

Pentland believes many people are looking for what liberal and progressive churches like Charleswood and Hillhurst offer.

“The culture is starved for what we are doing,” he says. “People are trying yoga, meditation—they want something spiritual. But the church isn’t providing it.”

That, he says, is why many aren’t growing. “They aren’t paying attention to the culture.”

For Pentland, “there’s never a better time to be the church . . . people are searching for meaning and they want a place to belong. They want a place to question. Same old, same old doesn’t work.”

At liberal churches like Charleswood and Hillhurst, it’s a formula that seems to be working.